Great Escapes: Willamette National Forest

Oregon summers are hot, and during days when the temperature breaks 100 degrees, there’s something about living in a city, no matter the size, that makes me feel even hotter. The heat reflects off the pavement, getting in the car is like opening a door to the Earth’s core, and everything feels too close together, like the city itself is perspiring. Have you ever taken a yoga class with way too many people? That’s how I feel. 

Thankfully, living in Oregon provides us lucky few with endless camping opportunities only a short drive away – and one of the best ways to cool off during the late-summer heat is to head to higher elevations and sleep under the stars. In the mountains, the air is cool, the water is even cooler, and the dense forest offers plenty of cover from the sun. 

Willamette National Forest is perhaps the best of these options, coming in at only about a two-hour drive, depending on where you want to camp. It takes visitors to heights of between 1,500 and 10,500 feet, and features some excellent spots along the McKenzie Pass.

Coldwater Cove Campground
Coldwater Cove Campground is located off 126, and is only a one-hour and 45-minute drive from Corvallis. It’s located next to Clear Lake, and visitors say it’s perfect for car camping with large groups. Camping next to the water is always ideal because it allows you to wash off the grime that’s included in an outdoor lifestyle. Bring a bar of soap and you’ll be able to camp for as long as you want, without having to endure your own naturally wonderful odor. 

Olallie at McKenzie Bridge
The great thing about camping in Willamette National Forest near the McKenzie Pass, is that you’re always close to water. The McKenzie River flows through or next to many of the campsites on this list, and this is true for Olallie at McKenzie Bridge. The campground is off 126, just a bit further from the previous site listed, and boasts several individual sites next to Olallie Creek and the McKenzie River itself. Running water will always be colder than standing water, so expect temperatures to be different than if you were camping at a lake. 

Belknap Hot Springs, Lodge and Gardens
Drive a few more miles down 126 and you’ll find Belknap Hot Springs, Lodge and Gardens. This is more of a tourist destination than a campground, but it’s something worth checking out if you’re in the area. Get away in style by renting a room at the lodge, if sleeping outside isn’t really your thing. They also have tent sites, RV sites, and rentable cabins for the more adventurous.

Limberlost Campground
Limberlost Campground is located on the scenic route up McKenzie Pass known as McKenzie Highway 242. This secluded campground is on the smaller side, but it has a cozy feel that’s perfect if you’re camping with multiple groups. It’s positioned next to Lost Creek, which feeds into the McKenzie River, and consists of mostly snow melt during the summer. If you decide to take a dip, be warned, it’s freezing.

If you’re an experienced camper and don’t like the feel of an established campground, national forest land allows anyone to camp pretty much wherever they want. Just make sure the camp is at least 100 feet away from the main road, and that you don’t spend more than 14 days within a 60-day period.

Drown your campfires, bring a cooler, and don’t forget the bug nets.

By Nick Stollings